A week from now, one of Oxford’s annual rituals begins. Clueless teenagers arrive in force to be interviewed for an undergraduate place.
I call it a ‘ritual’ because admissions interviews are not really functional; they are ceremonial. They take place in buildings that, unless you live in Downtown Abbey, seem utterly alien. Directions are given in code (‘call at the Porter’s Lodge’, ‘meals will be taken in Hall,’ ‘await instruction by the Old Smoking Room’…). The interview is a minuet in which smiling tutors and grimacing candidates dip and swing around questions that are supposed to distinguish minds that are truly graceful from those that are merely trained. None of it makes our admissions process more accurate, reliable, or fair.
Oxford has many rituals that are harmless, even valuable: gowns, punting, Evensong. The interview is not among these. It adds expense, work, and stress for no benefit. But compelling empirical evidence of unconscious bias, negative and positive, in face-to-face interviews has no impact on the high priests of the process, the admissions tutors. Some of the most inquiring and skeptical minds on the planet display a touching faith in their own ability to spot a diamond in the rough while never being dazzled by the flash of fool’s gold. The ritual is hated by applicants, hated by the press, and increasingly hated also by the government.
So why does it go on? Few are actually proud of the fact that, year after year, we admit a vast disproportion of applicants from private (i.e. fee-charging) schools. Only 6.5% of the cohort are educated in such schools, but last year they made up 41% of Oxford’s intake. (The average for all UK universities was only 10%.) And few of my colleagues are unaware that their counterparts around the world do not have the burden of interviews.
In part the explanation is stasis: ‘”How many Oxford dons does it take to change a light bulb?” “–What do you mean, ‘change’?”’
In part it is chaos: Oxford is a federation of 38 universities, its colleges, without a coherent overall admissions policy.
But I’m afraid that another important part of the explanation is power. Admissions tutors do not want to yield the power to choose the students they would like to teach over the next three or four years of their careers. The interview is a ritual that expresses, secures, and celebrates their power.
It is not generally understood that, at Oxford, those doing the interviewing are those doing the teaching. Nor is it understood that those at the top of the hierarchy, the Professors, normally have no obligation to teach or admit undergraduates. It is the Tutorial Fellow, overworked and often underpaid, that does the heavy-lifting. (Oxford, unlike many leading universities in the US or Canada, has not yet shunted undergraduate teaching onto graduate students.) That is why they are so keen to keep control over those they admit, and why a dysfunctional and damaging ritual continues.
But the secret is starting to leak out. British author Alex Preston, writing in what is, I think, intended to be a defence of the interview system, openly acknowledges that he was crammed for it: ‘I was prepared for my interview by the genial headmaster of the Sussex state secondary I attended. We met most mornings in the weeks leading up to that fateful October day and he’d fire questions at me about Eliot, Pound, Woolf and Joyce…’
Preston is touchingly unaware how few applicants have a ‘genial headmaster’ able to coach applicants for ‘most mornings’ over a period of weeks. But Preston does have enough self-awareness to figure out what the Oxford interview is really for:
‘the interview was about my potential tutors deciding whether I was a pupil who would manage to stick out the three years of essays and exams, whether I’d bore them in tutorials, or infuriate them…’
An ineffective ritual that leaks bias into admissions is sustained by the tutors’ desire not to admit students who might ‘bore’ or ‘infuriate’ them (or, I suppose, who might threaten or offend them). Even our students have started to figure it out.
What is to be done? We are unlikely to abolish interviews (see above, under ‘change’ and ‘chaos’); but there are ways to limit their damage. I shall explain two in the next post.